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Two matches into the Championship season and it is already time to ask 'What has gone wrong with Essex?'
April 22, 2013
The title of Chinua Achebe's novel, Things Fall Apart, might have referred to Essex's disintegration at Wantage Road. A series of rash shots contributed to Essex losing 20 wickets for 390 on a pitch on which Northamptonshire's last two wickets looted 228 at more than six runs an over.
So what, exactly, is the matter with Essex?
Yes, we are only two games into the Championship season, but this is not a matter of knee-jerkism. Essex have now won only nine of their last 50 Championship games. Had head coach Paul Grayson, too devastated to speak, answered questions after the innings defeat at Wantage Road, he would have faced no shortage of them.
Some supporters are even questioning the shelf life of Paul Grayson: he has been coach for six years but any tangible sense of improvement is lacking.
There is some impressive pace-bowling talent at Chelmsford - left-armer Reece Topley mixes dangerous swing with impressive cricketing nous for a 19-year-old - but at the moment it is being wasted. Tymal Mills and Maurice Chambers are often branded together with Topley yet Mills too often bowled short on leg stump and Chambers short outside off.
Bowling the pair together - as happened when David Willey and Steven Crook amassed a century stand for the ninth wicket at seven an over - looked a liability that the captain, James Foster, cannot afford. And Foster did have other options: Ravi Bopara only bowled three overs of medium-pace and Greg Smith - despite batting in the allrounder's slot of No 7 - none at all.
With the exemplary David Masters injured, that only makes the treatment of Sajid Mahmood more baffling. Signed on a not inconsiderable contract, Mahmood has so far been playing 2nd X1 cricket. Such is the erraticism of his rivals that even Mahmood could hardly fail to bring the attack more control.
Against Northants, the batting was even worse: players consistently looked good only to be undone by sloppy shots, especially to short balls outside off stump. It can't help that Essex have Owais Shah and Ryan ten Doeschate currently playing in the IPL. Or at least playing in theory; neither has so far appeared.
Shah normally bats at No 3. His replacement Ben Foakes has begun the Championship season with 18 runs from three innings and is not ready to bat there at this stage of his career. Perhaps Bopara, having rediscovered his timing, should bat at three until Shah's return.
Bopara opts for the quiet route
If some of the batting against Northants could be described as of the Twenty20 variety that was perhaps no coincidence. The impression, for several years, has been that Essex prioritise limited-overs competitions over the four-day game, with players like Shah and, especially, ten Doeschate, more effective in these. That may be unfair - speaking after the defeat to Northants, Foster certainly didn't sound like a man neglecting the County Championship - but until Essex gain promotion, the charge will remain.
And it's not as if Essex aren't producing any four-day players; they just move on. Varun Chopra and Chris Wright open the batting and bowling for the county champions, Warwickshire. It is a puzzle and it does not reflect well upon Essex, that so many players - Derbyshire seamer Tony Palladino could also be added to that list - need a move away from Chelmsford to reinvigorate their careers.
Adam Wheater, who began his Hampshire Championship career with an unbeaten half-century last week, aims to be the latest. Perhaps Essex were faced with an impossible situation: Wheater wanted to keep wicket and in Foster they have arguably the best keeper in the world, while Foakes is also a promising backup.
Yet might some compromise have been possible? Wheater could have been promised the gloves in one-day cricket, say, or Foster even relinquished them for some Championship games. That might seem ridiculous given Foster's keeping prowess, but he is 33 and Wheater is 23 and a good enough player to be worthy of compromise.
It could also be argued that current arrangements are not conducive to Foster. To remain an effective captain while maintaining his exemplary standards with the bat and gloves must be a very tiring job. Giving Foster a break from the captaincy in limited-overs cricket has worked for Chris Read at Nottinghamshire. It might be an idea worth pursuing, although it is less attractive now Wheater has gone on his way.
Essex might justifiably point out they are doing some things right - in Tom Westley's serene batting and Topley's bowling, they have two players of international potential. But no county is producing so much talent for so little on-pitch reward.
With a build and action evoking Steve Harmison, Mike Reed's bounce and movement wrecked Worcestershire's first innings. He claimed 5 for 27, his first Championship five-fer, to set up Glamorgan's victory. Credit should also go to his county's perseverance in developing his talent. Although he is 24, Reed had accomplished very little in the game until this season.
All the attention was on one South Africa opener making his debut at The Oval. But while Graeme Smith made only two, Alviro Petersen struck 167 and 91 in the match, playing with an assuredness Somerset's top order lacked. It would have been a frustrating sight for Essex, too: Petersen averaged only 21 in seven Championship games for them last season.
England are clearly hoping that Chris Tremlett will appear in the two Ashes series this year, but he will first need to break into the Surrey side: he was surprisingly omitted for their first game - prompting a call from Andy Flower. Both Surrey quicks who played instead - Jade Dernbach and Stuart Meaker - justified their inclusions with five-wicket hauls but Tremlett may replace Gary Keedy, who recorded match figures of 1 for 116 against Somerset, for this week's game with Sussex.
Durham's top order
As well as Warwickshire bowled - particularly Chris Wright, whose England chances are beginning to look more realistic - there could be no excusing Durham's two shambolic top-order collapses: their first six wickets fell for 50 in the first innings and 37 in the second. In 16 innings this season the first four Durham batsmen have scored a total of 99 runs between them. Recruiting an overseas batsman could be a shrewd investment to increase their chances of Championship survival.
Dig-In of the Week
Billy Godleman - another player unfulfilled at Essex - displayed remarkable obtrusiveness at Lord's, batting 265 deliveries for 55. He unwisely reverted to pinch-hitting, with a strike-rate of 75, in the second innings, but that is not his game: he made only three as Derbyshire were routed for 60.
Fixture of the Week
Derbyshire v Nottinghamshire, County Championship, Division One, County Ground, Wednesday
Is it too early to talk of a game football cliché enthusiasts would describe as a 'relegation six-pointer'? Perhaps not for Derbyshire, who will need to win perhaps three home games to have a good chance of avoiding relegation. The East Midlands derby against a Nottinghamshire side who began poorly against Middlesex at Trent Bridge will tell us much.
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